What is the hippocampus?

The hippocampus is part of the limbic system in the brain, the part of the brain that regulates our emotional and behavioral responses.
The hippocampus is part of the limbic system in the brain, the part of the brain that regulates our emotional and behavioral responses.

The hippocampus is part of the limbic system in the brain, the part of the brain that regulates our emotional and behavioral responses. The hippocampus contributes to learning and memory as well as emotion.

The hippocampus is one of the most studied parts of the brain. Scientists are particularly interested in the atrophy of the hippocampus, which shrinks in persons with Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and other disorders. Hippocampal atrophy is related to cognitive decline, particularly when it comes to the ability to access old memories or make new ones.

The hippocampus is crucial, and it is important to protect this vulnerable part of the brain and to see a doctor early if you suspect it may be atrophying in you or someone else.

Signs and symptoms of hippocampus atrophy

Because the hippocampus is involved in so many brain functions, hippocampus atrophy can produce multiple different symptoms, some of which are closely associated with particular conditions.

Symptoms that are particularly related to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life such as appointments or events
  • Difficulty solving problems or planning
  • Confusion about place or time
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Difficulty with images and spatial relationships
  • Problems with words, either speaking or writing
  • Misplacing things and not being able to retrace steps
  • Decreased judgment
  • Social or professional withdrawal
  • Changes in mood or personality

It can often be difficult to judge whether these symptoms are related to dementia or to typical age-related changes. However, early detection matters, so schedule a doctor’s visit if you’re concerned.

Causes of hippocampus atrophy

The vulnerability of the hippocampus has not been fully explained, nor have the biological mechanisms that might play a role in causing it to shrink. The following all appear to play a role in hippocampus health:

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Lifestyle
  • Environment

Hippocampus atrophy is a consistent feature in the following conditions:

Diagnosis for hippocampus atrophy

If your doctor suspects that your hippocampus has atrophied, they will base their diagnosis on multiple sources of information. These may include any or all of the following:

  • A detailed personal and family medical history
  • A physical exam
  • A neurological exam to test basic functions
  • Brain imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT)
  • Mental status tests on memory and the ability to solve simple problems
  • Mood assessment

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Treatments for the hippocampus

While many of the problems associated with hippocampus deterioration have no absolute “cure,” there are things you can do to keep your hippocampus healthy.

Maintain a healthy diet

Limit your intake of saturated fat and stick to healthy fats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Look for foods that are rich with antioxidants. You should also consume foods with omega-3 fatty acids such as fish or olive oil. Avoid alcohol, which has been associated with hippocampus atrophy.

Stay mentally and socially active

Both mental and social stimulation are important to hippocampus size. Keep your brain healthy with puzzles, games, and new challenges. Social relationships and interaction also play a role. They help ward off depression, which is associated with hippocampal atrophy. Studies of older people routinely demonstrate the importance of social activity to hippocampus function.

Exercise

Exercise may help you keep the hippocampus healthy through both direct and indirect means. Its indirect benefits come from exercise’s ability to lower blood pressure and prevent metabolic issues, both of which are linked to brain decay.

Aerobic exercise is particularly important and directly benefits the hippocampus. One study found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus.

Stay current with medical developments

Alzheimer’s disease affects many people and is a frequent subject of research. New information about brain health is continually emerging, leading to new medications and protocols. One current topic of research is neural stem cell grafting as a way to protect against some of the consequences of hippocampal atrophy.

Talk to your doctor about recent developments in the field and get updates as necessary.

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Medically Reviewed on 12/15/2020
References
Alzheimer's Association: "10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease."

Alzheimer's Association: "Medical Tests."

The American Journal of Medicine: "Association of Long-Term Diet Quality with Hippocampal Volume: Longitudinal Cohort Study."

Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology: "Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview."

Epilepsy & Behavior: "Hippocampal Injury Induced Cognitive and Mood Dysfunction, Altered Neurogenesis and Epilepsy: Can Early Neural Stem Cell Grafting Intervention Provide Protection?"

Harvard Health Publishing: "Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills."

University of California Irvine Health: "When to worry about memory loss."